How Democrats Come Back Again

Charlie Cook New
November 1, 2019

For those political aficionados capable of prying themselves away from cable news and the web, two quite interesting but very different books are just out.

RIP GOP: How the New America is Dooming the Republicans, by veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, was published last month. Greenberg has been a one-person think tank for the Democratic Party, particularly House Democrats, for the better part of 30 years. Anyone wondering what the GOP will look like five years after President Trump leaves town would be advised to read.

As to whether that will happen in 2021 or 2025, that’s where former ABC News political director Mark Halperin’s new book—his comeback attempt following some very public allegations of unwanted sexual advances to women—comes in. Released Tuesday, How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take, is what you would read if you found a big-time political journalist’s notebook of interviews with key Democratic operatives on a seat in the Metro or in the backseat of a Lyft in D.C. Halperin isn’t taking sides, just canvassing some smart Democrats about what they would recommend to take down Trump next year.

Halperin includes a bit of modern political history, particularly focusing on the last time Democrats were really in the wilderness (1981-1992) and how they escaped. It includes a very appropriate tribute to the late campaign strategist Paul Tully, who convinced the party in 1991 and 1992, and more importantly its donors, that they could win. Tully tragically died of a heart attack in a Little Rock hotel room at the age of 48 while advising Bill Clinton’s campaign, less than two months before his dream came true. Tully was one of the first people in either party to study and preach about the use of data analytics, convincing skeptical donors that their money would not be wasted.

But Halperin also goes into what went wrong for Democrats in 2016 and in other recent defeats, and how campaigns can avoid making those mistakes again. The most valuable chapter, “Candidate Reputation,” concerns defining your candidate before your opponent does—building and controlling a narrative, working social media, and developing trust and relationships with the media.

There are plenty of how-to or self-help sections that every Democratic party official, operative, or activist would be well served to internalize. The chapter “Staying United” concerns how Democrats can diminish, to the extent possible, the splintering that inevitably occurs in the party during a hotly contested nomination fight, including some tips on how to ease losing candidates out of the race in order to put the bruised party back together. One part seems aimed at President Obama, and the role he might play even before the party has picked a nominee. There are also some warnings about “black swan” events, picking a running mate, running a convention, and preparing for debates (with some particularly good advice from David Axelrod and James Carville).

Greenberg’s diagnosis of what ails the Republican Party, and its prognosis for the future, is obviously very negative, with plenty of broadsides against Trump and the GOP. But whether you are a Democrat who will relish every bit of it or a Republican who will wince all the way through, he backs up his arguments with a ton of polling and demographic data, and graphs that will look familiar to those who regularly see memos from Democracy Corps, a joint 20-year project of Greenberg and Carville.

Greenberg begins with a discussion about “the New America,” the changing demographics and voting behavior of our country, and what it means for the GOP. He discusses the rise of the tea-party movement and how it morphed into the Donald Trump movement; party polarization; and a look at the current composition of the Republican Party based on his polling. He extensively examines how the immigration issue and identity politics played into Trump’s rise, and how Democrats might play them going forward.

Greenberg attempts to illuminate what the GOP might look like a decade from now. This question is worth asking every Republican pollster and strategist, because no one seems to have a clear idea now. Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis, who represented much of Fairfax County, Virginia as it was transitioning from Democrat to Republican, has observed that the Republican Party has now gone from country club to just country. The three centers of the GOP—small-town and rural voters, whites without a four-year college degree, and white evangelicals—would seem to be crowding out the traditional profile of suburban, upscale Republicans who belong to more mainstream Protestant or Catholic churches. This is a topic that we will be hearing a lot about over the next few years, and I think it will be partially affected by who Democrats nominate for president next year.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on October 29, 2019